Wednesday, June 20, 2007

How to Chat in a Chatless Disney Online Game

Brian

When Disney launched its own massively multiplayer online role-playing game for kids, Toontown Online, one of the features it was most concerned about was chat. As long as there as the potential for tweens, teens, and anyone pretending to be them to sent instant messages to one another, there was the potential for strangers to harass kids. So they limited the ability to communicate in the online world:
[Y]ou select a subject and then from a submenu of sentences, each automatically customized to the correct context. Selecting "I need to find ...", would magically insert the names of the items you have quests for. For all walk-up users, all interactions would be via SpeedChat.

They added a method to allow direct chat between users that involves the exchange of secret codes that are generated for each user (with parental permission). The idea is that kids would print them out and give them to each other on the playground. This was a great way for Disney to end-run the standard - since Speed Chat was an effective method of preventing the exchange of these codes, and theoretically the codes had to be given "in-person", making the recipient not-a-stranger. Sure, some folks post them on message boards, but presumably those are folks who 1) are adults, or 2) know each other, right? In any case, as long as no one could pass secret codes within Toontown itself, Disney feels safe.
Link (via Schneier on Security). But on a medium that is all about interactive communication between friends and strangers alike, blocked chat won't stay blocked for long. Savvy juveniles soon developed a system of signs and codewords to pass along their secret code within the game so that they could chat with anyone they wanted to:
Around you may see toons who have alot of picture frames at their toon estates, they are usually looking for secret friends. This is how to do it! So, lets say you wanted to make secret friends with a toon named Lily. Your "pretend" secret friend code is 4yt 56s.
  • You: *Move frames around in house to form a 4.* "Okay."
  • Her: "Okay." She has now written the first letter down on a piece of paper.
  • You: *Move Frames around to form a y.* "Okay."
  • Her: "Okay." She has now written the second number down on paper.
  • You: *Move Frames around in house to form a t* "Okay."
  • Her: "Okay." She has now written the third letter down on paper. "Okay."
  • You: *Do nothing* "Okay" This shows that you have made a space.
  • Repeat process
Link. The Toontown kids aren't quite as ingenious as the inventors of Nicaraguan Sign Language, but they sure are resourceful.

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